Alec Mills BSC by David A Ellis

Cinematographer Alec Mills has been responsible for the look of many well-known movies, which includes The McKenzie Break, Death on the Nile, Return of the Jedi, Christopher Columbus and seven Bond movies. They include: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy who Loved Me, Moonraker, The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill.
Alec Mills was born on 10th May 1932. He has written a book about his life called Shooting 007 and other celluloid adventures. ISBN: 9780750953634. It is published by the History Press and has 256 pages. There is a foreword by the late Sir Roger Moore.
Were you interested in films as a child?
Yes, but unfortunately my parents couldn’t afford to take me to the cinema so our gang of naughty boys found a way of sneaking into a cinema without paying. Eventually we were caught and my parents were questioned by the police-leaving Dad to read the riot act to me, but this incident was a clue to where my future lay. It was Mum who took the next step to my future employment.
I understand you started your career at Carlton Hill Studios at fourteen?
Yes, Carlton Hill Studios was a small studio, which mainly filmed second features; I worked for them before going into the Navy for my national service. They had two small stages, one of them very small, but I seem to recall that one of the stages had a rather large supporting post in the middle and all the sets had to be designed around this structural feature.
How long did you work for them?
I had three enjoyable years there.
I see you went through the ranks, first as a loader and clapperboy, then focus puller, camera operator finally director of photography. Can you remember what your first film was in each grade, and what your first day was like as a director of photography?
Carlton Hill specialised in B movies, which are not particularly memorable. Eyes that Kill and the Monkey’s Paw come to mind from the late forties, as well as Vengeance is Mine. I believe The Monkey’s Paw might be available on DVD. My first production as focus puller was Lost in 1955 with Guy Green as director and Harry Waxman as director of photography. My first major production as a camera operator was when Michael Reed gave me my break on The Saint series in 1966. My first project as a director of photography was The Island of Adventure, a pilot episode for a possible Enid Blyton series being produced by Stanley O’Toole. We filmed this in Cornwall (near Stanley’s home at Lamorna Cove, I think) but the series was never picked up. The first job is always scary, but I was working for free just to get the credit, so it was unlikely Stanley would ever fire me.
I read that you worked extensively for the Walt Disney Company as camera operator. How did this come about, apart from working over here, did you do any shooting in the States for them?
I worked for Disney as a focus puller and later as a camera operator. This was the late fifties/early sixties, focusing on such films as Kidnapped (Scotland), Greyfriars Bobby, Three Lives of Thomasina (Scotland again), and Swiss Family Robinson (Tobago). I operated on Guns in the Heather (Ireland), and Diamonds on Wheels, which I think was mostly in and around Pinewood, but nothing in America.
After this I see you worked on The Saint series. What TV work was like compared to features, and how long did it takes to shoot an episode of The Saint.
TV series are more demanding than a film because they have much smaller budgets, meaning that you have to cover more pages in a day. On Soldier, Soldier I believe we had to do about eight pages a day; episodes usually took one week occasionally two depending on the script.
Was The Saint shot on 35mm?
Yes, it was filmed on 35mm film.
Did you ever shoot on 16mm for TV, and did you have a favourite TV series you filmed?
The first time I worked on 16mm was in the early 1990s on Press Gang, a children’s television series about some kids (Julia Sawalha and Dexter Fletcher) who ran a junior newspaper. Other television series on 16mm included Soldier, Soldier, Moving Story and Seekers – another pilot for a possible Linda La Plante series that wasn’t picked up. My favourite TV series was The Saint.
In 1969 you operated on your first Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Was it a demanding shoot, and how long did it take?
It took about six months with our locations in Switzerland and Portugal, leaving the studio sequences completed at Pinewood. All films can be very demanding, Bonds are no different.
How long did a Bond film take to make and were other operators used apart from the main one?
Principal photography on a Bond schedule usually takes about six months, but there are several units (first, second, model units, and sometimes flying or underwater units), all of which had at least one camera operator.
Did you ever find being a director of photography was challenging, and what was your most challenging film as camera operator and director of photography?
Everything is challenging in the film world as it is with one’s wife, where you just have to come to terms with the situation. Roman Polanski’s Tragedy of Macbeth (1971) was a particularly challenging film on which to work as a camera operator, both physically and mentally, but he was very happy with the end result. The most challenging work as a director of photography was Shaka Zulu, a ten-part television mini-series shot entirely on location in South Africa.
What proved to be your most difficult film film, and which took the longest?
Probably Shaka Zulu, a ten-part mini-series telling the story of King Shaka who ruled the Zulus in the early nineteenth century. It took a year to film in a deserted backwater town called Eshowe, about thee hours’ drive from Durban. It was a marvellous script by Bill Faure and Joshua Sinclair, but at times the politics of apartheid made it very difficult, especially towards the end. However it was a very useful production for me, because Cubby Broccoli had seen it in
America when he offer me The Living Daylights, which led to my return to the Bond team.
How long was the shoot on Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, and were there difficulties. Was it filmed on 65mm and have you ever shot in that format?
No, it was filmed in 35mm: Arri BL cameras with anamorphic lenses supplied by Joe Dunton Cameras. It was an enjoyable film to work on at Elstree Studios, but it was also very political. For example, I wasn’t taken to America to work on the Yuma and Crescent City sequences at the end of the UK shoot because I dared to disagree with one of the producers at the rushes. As for 65mm, no, I have never shot in that format.
Did you find it easy to switch from operating to director of photography?
No, because I had very regular employment as a camera operator. After making the decision to move up to director of photography I was lured back to the Bond team, filming Octopussy as camera operator, but with the promise of lighting work in the future. I must say that John Glen made good on his promise later on. After finally making the decision to go up to lighting, things start to change when my life – my film world – suddenly died on me! It was like getting over a serious operation.
Who gave you the chance to direct the two films in Australia, and did you find directing easy and enjoyable? Did you find it easy switching, and would you have liked to have taken up directing earlier?
The producer who gave me my break as a director was Stanley O’Toole, the same Stanley O’Toole who gave me my break as a cameraman. He offered me the opportunity to direct two horror films in Australia for Village Roadshow. I always wanted to direct so it was a golden opportunity to see if I was capable of doing the job. The scripts were awful, but I put a lot of work into the project and all things considered the end result was much better than I could have hoped for. I hoped to direct more.
Like a number of cinematographers, including Ossie Morris and Jack Cardiff, it is good you have written about your life in the film world – if you couldn’t get in the business what other job would you have chosen? There is no other business for me; I could not imagine doing anything else.
Would you tell me more about working with your friend Roger Moore?
This relationship started on The Saint television series back in 1966 when England won the World Cup! Roger was very tall and I am short, where I often had to stand on a box when we are filming close ups. We had a very ‘jokey’ relationship, I mean he was always playing practical jokes on me or was winding me up. This was the beginning of a long and close friendship, where I endured many years of suffering as Roger’s stooge!
You worked on seven Bond films, two as director of photography. Did you enjoy them all?
Yes, everyone and what a wonderful company Eon Productions are to work for. Cubby, Barbara and Michael are like a family to me. Even to this day I receive Christmas cards and sometimes gifts from them. They don’t forget you even after years of retirement.
Did you enjoy your TV work as much as features?
It is always good to work on whatever you are offered. As ever chemistry is most important; if you have a good director, cast and crew then it doesn’t matter whether it’s film or television.
Have you shot commercials?
I worked on a few as a camera operator, but I don’t recall filming many as director of photography. One springs to mind, a Coca Cola commercial where they asked me to do ‘the Bond look’ – this was just after completing Living Daylights.
Did you have a favourite film stock?
As I recall most of my films were shot using Kodak film stock, in fact I seem to recall that on Shaka Zulu we shot over one million feet! 5247 seemed to be the mainstay at the height of my 35mm work (which I think later became 5248?) but I found Kodak would never let me down.
You taught cinematography – did you enjoy this as much as working on a film set?
I enjoyed doing both, but it was nice to be involved with the National Film & Television School after I retired from active filmmaking, as this was an opportunity to pass on years of my experience.
Was it a lot easier to get in the business when you started? Do you think people should still start at the bottom rather than going straight in as a director of photography after film school? Isn’t it better to go through the ranks on film sets, as you did?
A tricky one this; I grew up in the film world going from grade to grade, experiencing both the good and bad in different ways. Though I enjoyed my time at Beaconsfield, I was concerned about the NFTS’s tendency to concentrate on training cinematographers rather than teach them about the technical side of the camera department, optics and the responsibilities of the lower technical grades in the camera department. Just being capable of lighting a film set doesn’t necessarily qualify you to run the camera department; there is no substitute for on-set experience and spending time in each grade. The notion of pushing students to light and operate immediately not only places more pressure on the student, but it is also not necessarily in line with best practice of the camera department.
Did you have any industry heroes?
Both Harry Waxman and Michael Reed had influence over me in so many different ways. From a directorial point of view it was probably Roman Polanski who most challenged me…
Did you keep the same crew?
As much as was possible. For many years Danny Shelmerdine was my clapper loader, Mike Frift my focus puller, then Frank Elliott. After getting my break on the Bond films as cameraman I was delighted to use Mike Frift as my camera operator. In the old days camera crews tended to be very loyal to each other, which is something I like to see continue. My gaffers usually came from the old school, working with John Tythe and Roy Larner, and I mustn’t forget Geoff Chappell who for so many years serviced and maintained my light meters.
Did you learn about lighting as a camera operator?
Yes, I learnt a lot from the likes of Jack Cardiff, Jean Tournier and Mike Reed whilst operating. Confidence is essential in all things even if internally you are very nervous. We all feel nervous at times and this is not made any easier by tight schedules and limited budgets, but we can’t show it.
Did you use a lot of lighting in your work?
Only what was necessary for the scene. The largest sets that I ever had to light were usually on Bond films, but I tried not to overdo it, especially as I recall the producers were so concerned about their budgets.
Which Bond took the longest to film, and which proved the most difficult. What film stock did you use on the Bonds?
They are much the same in terms of length. Generally they take about six months. Location work can be very tiring, I remember that the six-months of concentrated filming on Licence To Kill at Churubusco Studios in and around Mexico City was very draining, not to mention the very humid conditions we experienced in Florida and Key West. Even when that was finished there was still six months of editing, but that didn’t involve me till the final grading, which usually takes a few days. As for the film stock, my preference was always Kodak.
Did you ever work on green screen?
Not much as this was specialist work at the time. I preferred not to use green screen as it is much nicer to see what you are filming, rather than have to imagine what it will look like on the screen when the post production process is complete.
Was it your decision to choose the second unit cinematographer?
Sometimes. Arthur Wooster was a good long-established second unit director as was well known for his action photography on the Bond films. Working on Soldier, Soldier and Shaka Zulu, I had the chance to recommend Jimmy Devis, a long-time friend who had a very safe pair of hands on second units.
How many cameras are used on a complex scene?
I worked on very few films or television series, which used more than one camera on the main unit. Occasionally we would get a second or maybe even a third camera and crew for large crowd sequences, but by and large but I always found filming with a single camera was a straightforward way of doing things. Second units help with battle sequences, where their multiple cameras are for cover…
How much creative freedom did you have setting the style?
I nearly always had the freedom to express myself. The one exception was on Biddy, where as I recall the director, Christine Edzard, wanted to keep the camera very static and leave any movement in frame to the actors – a bit like a theatre audience watching a play.
Did you prefer to work with directors who concentrated more with the actors, leaving all of the technical details to you, or didn’t you mind directors who wanted to give some input technically?
I cannot remember working with a director who gave me any technical input.
What advice would you give to new people in the business?
Very little, except be honest and learn from your mistakes…
Have you won any awards?
No, I didn’t win any awards but I believe series II of Press Gang won the 1991 BAFTA for best children’s television series.
Did you prefer location filming or studio work, and did you have a favourite location in the world?
Filming in a studio was lot more controlled, but location work can be more challenging depending on the location, not forgetting the weather. As for a favourite location, I was lucky to work on many wonderful locations around the world, especially with the Bond series, where every one of them was interesting.
How did you choose your projects?
For the most part I got my work through personal contacts with the producers and directors who I had worked with previously. I had an agent, but curiously enough I don’t remember getting any work through the agency, only through my own contacts.
When you became a director of photography were you still involved with the framing of the camera, the movement, etc. or did you concentrate more on the lighting, leaving the camera movement to others?
I would always involve myself with getting the set-ups, but trusting my camera operator to liaise more with the director and actors while I concentrated on the lighting. This was the one big difference between camera operating in the UK and camera operating in the States, in fact one of the producers on Return of the Jedi seemed to take great exception to my liaising as a camera operator so closely with the director Richard Marquand, not understanding that this was the way it is done in the UK.
Finally, some say the director’s strength makes everyone secure – would you agree with that statement?
Possibly. But there are times where the director’s choices can be difficult for the cinematographer, but we take on all the challenges we are faced with!
David A Ellis©